Poetry Quebec Interview with Carolyn Zonailo
1. Are you a native Quebecer? If not, where are you originally from? Why did you come to Quebec?
No, I am not a native Quebecer. I first visited Montreal for Expo '67, driving here from upstate New York via Route 138. Co-incidentally, twenty-five years later I moved into a circa 1870 farmhouse on that same highway, near Huntingdon, Quebec. There is a Route 138 sign not too far from where I now live in western N.D.G., as this highway stretches all the way from Montreal to the New York border, possibly originating in Quebec City and ending at the Trout River border crossing. I became very familiar with that small border crossing−that I first went through in 1967−during the six years that I lived only ten kilometres from it, in the white clapboard house Stephen and I named "The Cedars." After Expo the next time I came to Montreal was for my first League of Canadian Poets annual general meeting, in 1978, which I wrote about in a short article entitled "Journals and Journeys," published in QWrite, Winter 1998. In 1981 I came to Montreal to perform with two jazz musicians, pianist Al Neil and percussionist Howard Broomfield.
I next returned to Montreal in 1991 to attend a Writer's Union conference at John Abbott College. Although I did not meet Stephen Morrissey when I first met most of the Vehicule poets back in 1978, I had by this time edited and published his book, Family Album (Caitlin Press, 1989). When I wrote to tell him I'd be coming to Montreal for the TWUC conference, he wrote back saying, "The least I can do is pick you up at the airport." As the saying goes, the rest is history. My mother said I took one professional trip too many. During the six years I lived with Stephen in the dairy farming area south of Huntingdon, we commuted back and forth to various rented apartments in Montreal. Today, much to my own surprise and that of my family and friends in Vancouver, I've now been living in Quebec for almost twenty years.
I was born and raised in Vancouver, British Columbia and very much considered myself a west coast poet. I founded Caitlin Press in Vancouver in 1977; I received my M.A. in literature from Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. As far as I knew I was really only coming to Montreal that last time for a weekend. Its been an interesting juggling act for me, as a poet, to be from the west coast, but living in Montreal. For the past dozen years Stephen and I have lived in a small cottage in the northwest corner of the Notre Dame de Grâce neighbourhood. I currently divide my time between Montreal, Vancouver, and New York City. Living on the coast, in Vancouver, the focal point is nature: the mountains, the rain forests, the beaches, the lush gardens, the mild climate. My whole life there I was quite conscious of living in a place that was truly beautiful. As one goes about daily life, there are glimpses of snow-covered mountains; vistas of spectacular western sunsets; the joy of swimming in the ocean; the pleasure of confetti-like springtime cherry blossoms; and access to outdoor activities year-round. There is also a sense, deep in the psyche, of wilderness−just over the top of the mountains, there is uncharted wilderness; past Burrard Inlet and the mouth of the Fraser River, there are waters that can be dangerous for boaters−I know, because boating was a huge part of my growing up and first part of my adult life. One can live both in a city and in nature while living in Vancouver, with the sense of breath-taking beauty and the undercurrent of the wilder side of nature, both on land and at sea. Hikers and skiers get lost on the mountains; mariners drown in bad weather on the waters just outside the city. Nature can be both beautiful and overpowering. But most of all, being from Vancouver endows my poetic sensibility with a certain kind of sensuousness derived from the beauty nature offers on the west coast.
Montreal, on the other hand, is an urban environment. The architecture is interesting and has a beauty of its own. The downtown core is vibrant, lively, appealing. I never tire of walking along Ste Catherine, among the crowds of people, enjoying the urban landscape. The ethnic diversity here is quite different from the Vancouver I grew up in. And, as a city, Montreal is steeped in history. On the west coast, one measures human life against nature; here one measures the individual's life against history, time, ancestors, generations, and the decades of people who lived here before I ever came to Montreal. The stretch of historical time, those layers of human habitation in this particular locale, bring a different perspective. Living in Montreal I am reminded that this city is a venerable, historical entity. My human life stands in a different relationship to the city itself, with its buildings, edifices and structures. Also, as a Montrealer, I am at the center of this country, with Ottawa only a two hour drive or bus ride away. I don't have the same thinking as one does out on the west coast. Living here, I have become a centralist. I see the west as the frontier and the east as where Canada began.
2. When and how did you encounter your first Quebec poem?
The first Quebec poets I read were in high school in Vancouver−Anne Hébert in translation, and Leonard Cohen's first two books of poetry.
3. When and how did you first become interested in poetry?
I was born a poet. There isn't a time I can remember when poetry wasn't important to me. I don't think all poets have to be born poets−it just happens to be the way I am. Other poets have often told me I'm a born poet. I say that if the poems stopped coming, I would never write poetry again. The poems arrive. They rattle around inside me, insistent, until I write them down and work with them. I've written elsewhere about the three books from my childhood that were early influences on me: Mother Goose: The Complete Book of Nursery Rhymes, given to me when I was five years old; an illustrated copy of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and my grade four textbook, Poems Worth Knowing. Toronto poet David McFadden used the latter as a title for one of his own poetry books. I guess they had the same textbook in Ontario as in British Columbia.
4. What is your working definition of a poem?
One of my favourite American poets, William Stafford, called poems "lucky talk." Poet and Copper Canyon Press publisher, Sam Hamill, says poetry is "shadow work." I like John Keats' idea of poetry as "soul-making." As humans, we seem to be wired to be creative. We think at times in poetry, be it narrative, meditative or lyric. We are made such that we have an aesthetic, symbolic way of processing experience and expressing ourselves. Our ancestors painted in caves, made miniature statues, chanted rhythmic language, told narratives, danced, sang, composed music and created sculptures with whatever materials were at hand. We have been writing poetry for an awfully long time.
A definition of poetry I've used is that we seem to need poetry to say what we can't say any other way. We need the accented, cadenced, condensed, economical way of thinking that poetry demands. If we could just talk poetry, we wouldn't need to compose or write poetry. So I believe that we, as humans, need to be able to think and to express ourselves through the poetic medium. Again, we seem to be wired that wayâ€”from antiquity on down.
I feel that poetry is related to its root word, poiēsis, which means making. I also believe that when I've written a poem−a real poem−the poem is then something that is new in the world, i.e., it is a creation, an entity that has been made or created that has come into being and that wasn't there before. That poem exists on its own, separate from me, the poet. I may have metaphorically given birth to the poem, but now it carries its own existence, just as, if you've ever had children, you realize they came through you but are themselves. And, if you as their birth mother or father were to die, that child would still be alive and grow and be who they are. No matter how you define poetry, it is intrinsic to how we process and express and communicate our common human existence, regardless of gender, race, culture, language, historical time and place. Poetry remains its own entity, a universal and enduring process of poiēsis.
5. Do you have a writing ritual? If so, provide details.
I think the poem before I write it. I hear the poem before it gets written down. I often describe myself as composing poetry rather than writing a poem. I hear the rhythm, I hear individual lines, or I envision a title, and then I keep these in my mind until the poem itself has formed. I also sometimes experience poems visually before I write them. I see an image; I observe something in life, something that catches my eye−whether a person, place, or event. So there's both an audio and visual process through which poems come to me. Other poems begin in dreams. I have woken up and written a poem out on a piece of paper beside my bed and gone back to sleep. Certain poems arrive in their entirety; others take a long time.
For example, my poem "The Archetypal Mother of Us All" (The Goddess in the Garden, Ekstasis Editions, 2002) suddenly arrived one afternoon. Stephen and I were out for a walk in our neighbourhood, in the very early spring. When we came in I sat down on a bench by the back door, one that I use for putting on and removing my boots and shoes. I spontaneously wrote the poem in its full length on a scrap of paper, before I even took off my coat and hat. And this poem needed few changes during editing. It sprang full-grown, like Athena from the head of her father, Zeus. A lot of my poems come from people I've seen; from my dreams and unconscious, fed by my lifelong Jungian studies; or simply from my imagination. I'm also very observant by nature, so many of my poems come from direct observation. My poetry is also about my experience as a woman and where I live in time, place, and history.
The next step is to write the poem out in longhand; this could happen in any place, at any time. I have poems written on paper placemats while in diners; on wads of post-its all stuck together; on scrap paper that I make from drafts of poems; I've written poems in notebooks, diaries and journals; and sometimes I even write in my special Clairfontaine books that I buy specifically for writing in. The next step is to see the poem in type. I've never been able to write prose or poetry by typing directly onto the typewriter or computer. I've always had to think the poem out, listen to it, hand-write it, before I get to a typed copy. A poem can need a hundred or more revisions, or next to nothing in terms of revising. I always try to remind myself that re:vision involves actually trying to see the poem anew. I can say with sincerity that the poems are given to me. Michael Jackson spoke about his music and dancing as talents that he had, but he also recognized the way creative pieces come through the individual, not necessarily originating in ways that an artist can lay claim to. Jackson said: "I hate to take credit for the songs I've written. I feel that somewhere, someplace, it's been done and I'm just a courier bringing it into the world. I really believe that. I love what I do." (People, "Tribute, Remembering Michael 1958-2009, New York, NY, 2009).
I know that a poem is finished when it stops bothering me. I'm not one of those poets who rewrite old poems or who use other poets' lines as springboards for their own work. My poems are, for better or worse, completely original and authentically mine. I guess I could sum this up by saying that I am a strongly intuitive poet, while at the same time my approach is keenly observational. For me, both the everyday world of common human experience and the visionary, mystical, imaginal world all co-exist at the same time. This has always been how I've experienced life, from childhood on, and this innate sensibility of mine informs my poetry.
6. What is your approach to the writing of poems: inspiration driven, structural, social, thematic, other?
All of the above. As explained in the previous question, inspiration plays a large role in how I compose poetry. I am, however, a highly crafted poet; I follow W.C. Williams' and Charles Olson's dictates that not in ideas but in things, and that form must always follow content. Being a poet from the west coast and having spent so much of my life on or near the ocean, I like to think of craft, as in the craft of writing poetry, through the metaphor of that other kind of craft, i.e., a boat. In other words, it is the poetic craft, the structural foundation of the poem, that will carry the poem's content from the poet to the page to the reader, just as a boat carries its passengers from shore across water to another shore. If the poem isn't built properly, it won't float.
I do think some of my poetry is socially driven, especially as a woman poet and a feminist. Also, although I am primarily a lyric poet, I've written a surprising amount of political poetry because I come from a heritage that is both spiritual and political. I am a Russian Doukhobor on my father's side. The Doukhobors emigrated to Canadian 1899, under the sponsorship of the famous Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy. They are the largest en masse group of immigrants in Canadian history. The Doukhobors sought asylum in Canada, to escape persecution in their native Russia. The Doukhobors or spirit-wresters, which is how their name translates, rebelled against both the Czar's government and the Eastern Orthodox Church.
They believe that God resides in each of us, and that we do not need the intervention of the church or priests to pray for us or to live a spiritual life. The Doukhobors are not Christian per se, rather theirs is a philosophy of life. They essentially held the world's first peace rally, when they burned their firearms in Russia in 1895. The Doukhobors refused to serve in the Russian army. Doukhobors are pacifists. They do not believe in killing another human. As well, they advocate gender and social equality. They are also anarchists. And they are deeply spiritual. It is an interesting and inspiring heritage for me, as a poet. The political was born in me just as was the spiritual and visionary. In my 1993 book, Nature's Grace, (Empyreal Press), there is a quotation from west coast writer and critic, Don Precosky: "A poem cannot stop a bullet; poetry can't even keep us from becoming evil…What, in a political way can a poem do? It can tell, it can be a tattletale, it can, maybe, catch the conscience of someone drifting the wrong way…Perhaps the most political act a poet can do is write truly about the everyday life around him, to present it without the advertiser's illusions and the tourist's clichés."
At times I've described myself as a landscape poet. I've also defined myself as a feminist poet. I identify myself as a visionary poet. I've written a lot of poems around the themes of gardens and flowers. I've written poems throughout my career that talk about the erotic from a female viewpoint. I wrote an essay about this entitled: "The Triangle of Love: Eros, Psyche and Poetry." This essay was originally presented on a panel for the June 2004 League of Canadian Poets conference that was held that year in Montreal. My essay will be published in a forthcoming issue of The League of Canadian Poets Feminist Caucus Living Archives Series.
I've also had a lifelong interest in and study of Jungian psychology, so the complexities of human nature is a recurring theme. Classicist and author Norman O. Brown was one of my professors, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Rochester in upstate New York. I studied classical Greek language and travelled in Greece. I've had a lifelong interest in mythology and comparative religions. Although I've written poems from the perspective of my Doukhobor heritage from the beginning of my poetry career, I now find that in these recent times of terrorism and violence I write more and more from a pacifist viewpoint. For example, my poems "Beloved," "Name Change," and "The Garden Of The Dead" are among other political poems in my most recent book of poetry, the moon with mars in her arms, (Ekstasis Editions, 2006).
As for 'other' I also write narrative poems; I write poems that explore my own personal emotions and experiences; I've written long poems including several long vision-quest poems. Sometimes the long poem or linked lyric form interests me. I've also written prose poetry. So perhaps I could say that the 'other' for me is that of exploring different poetic forms. One of my early books Zone 5 (blewointmentpress, 1978) is a book of prose poems. I've also written a full-length poetic drama, Cassandra and Agamemnon, which was presented to the public at the Atwater Library in 2005, in a dramatized-style reading by members of The C.G. Jung Society of Montreal.
7. Do you think that being a minority in Quebec (i.e. English-speaking) affects your writing? If so, how?
Yes. As a born and raised and identified west coast poet, it was a big shock to me to be plunged into the language politics and cultural struggles of being a poet who writes in the English language and who comes from another part of Canada. Of course, since my move here was so unexpected and unplanned, I had hardly taken into consideration the differences in both physical and political climates here in Quebec. I still have not adjusted to either the winters or to being what an artist friend called "part of a hated minority." The first year I lived here was 1992, so not too many years after my introduction to Quebec, I had to live through the nothing short of horrendous referendum of 1995. I didn't yet know that it was called the Neverendum Referendum.
In response to that experience of 1995 I wrote a long poem entitled "Winter" which was published as a chapbook by Morgaine House, Pointe Claire, in 1998. This long poem will eventually be published in a book entitled, O Tongue, O Bone. The collection will be comprised of four mytho-political long poems, the first of which is "Winter." It shocked me that I received such strong reactions to it, including a scathing letter from senior poet Doug Jones, with whom I'd considered myself in friendly relations. Winter received good reviews; one place it was favourably reviewed was in the Montreal Gazette. I was also sent a brief and encouraging letter from the late Louis Dudek about the poem. I've now had a chance to live for much longer than I ever expected in Quebec. I don't think I could write that poem now, as I know too much about Quebec politics. I'm probably too familiar with Quebec to write as spontaneously as I did back when I wrote "Winter."
I still find myself conflicted about the politics of language here in Quebec. I had reading, writing and speaking knowledge of French before I moved here, since I studied French in high school and throughout my undergraduate degree. My work has been translated into French; I participate in multi-lingual poetry readings; and, of course, living in Montreal I have friends and fellow writers who speak or write in English and French, or with many diverse language backgrounds. Overall the experience of living here as part of a minority has allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of ethnic conflicts in other places. Unfortunately I can now understand how one neighbour can feel such a degree of hatred because of language, ethnic, racial or religious differences that they would want to kill another neighbour. This is not an understanding I'm proud of having learned. I would not have acquired this perspective had I not moved to Quebec at the time I did, with the 1995 referendum on the horizon and all the bitterness that accompanied it, as well as the adverse economic fallout from the political instability.
We love our small red-brick house in northwestern N.D..G which I named "Casa Bella." But for the first ten years we lived here, we had separatist neighbours directly across the street who outright refused to say Bonjour, smile, or otherwise acknowledge us. Since my husband and stepson are fifth and sixth generation Irish-Montrealers, I have a lot of trouble with that attitude of superiority. This couple maintained their hatred of us for over a decade, simply looking right past us and never acknowledging our presence, because they were separatists and we were not. And before we moved to our home in N.D.G., there were the experiences I wrote about in "Winter."
But having said all the above, I need to point out that for the most part, on a day-to-day basis, people in Montreal get along really very well together. This is the truth. There's actually a lot of racial and cultural harmony here. By paradox, French-speaking, English-speaking and immigrant inhabitants have all found a way to co-exist. The politics of separation are in contrast to daily life. On our street, a short city block either side of us on both sides of the street, there are families from Morocco, India, Jamaica, Romania, Greece, Italy, Vietnam, Poland, China, as well as QuebeÃ§ois, plus Stephen and myself. This list probably doesn't cover all the ethnic backgrounds. Our street is a microcosm of Montreal as a whole. It is wonderful that we all get along as well as we do.
When Stephen and I lived in the dairy farming countryside down near the New York state border, we often needed to live in French, with townspeople, business persons, shop-keepers, neighbours, tradesmen and others. There was rarely a problem; I can't say there were no problems whatsoever, but for the most part people had goodwill toward each other. I'm not turning around now and saying that I condone hatred or fear of the other, nor do I believe that neighbour should kill neighbour. I'm just saying that living in Quebec has taught me to understand both how people can live side-by-side with those who don't share the same background, and how people can become so entrenched in their differences, their ideology, their hatred, that it can be used as a force for destruction. Cultures can be closed off and xenophobic. Religious beliefs can be used as a pretext for murder. Ethnic, racial or linguistic differences can lead to violence. This is not humankind at its best−but it is one way people can decide to go. The FLQ is an historical fact. Just recently, there was a lot of publicity about the reading aloud of the manifesto of this terrorist organization, during festivities celebrating the 250th anniversary of the battle on the Plains of Abraham, the decisive battle where New France became part of the colonized English territory that eventually formed Canada as we now know it.
As a Canadian poet, I find it hard to accept that there are people who live in our residential neighbourhood who would want to destroy Canada. I hold Canada to be one of the best and most tolerant countries in the world. I don't want to see it broken apart. I currently spend part of my time in New York City, and I did my undergraduate degree in southern California and at the University of Rochester in upstate New York, so I appreciate the hugely populated and geographically beautiful country to our south. But in the end I am Canadian. Living in Quebec has made me more aware of how divisive and deadly ethnic, religious, racial or cultural differences can be. This issue and its related themes have become part of my writing. Being from the west and living in Quebec has made me think more about politics and my Doukhobor heritage of pacifism than if I had not come here.
I'm still a west coast poet and always will be. I'm also a Montreal poet. And, I'm a Canadian poet. I can't say I've ever thought of myself as a Quebec poet. My Quebec is Montreal, despite having lived in rural Quebec for several years. Even back then, I spent part of my time in Montreal and identified myself, as a poet, with Montreal rather than with Quebec. Montreal is an island−I see the city as distinct from the rest of the province. As for the winter climate, for a west coaster like myself, it's just plain too cold here in the winter to ever adapt to it. Summer in Montreal is wonderful−even a rainy summer like this past one is great. There's always so much to do and enjoy during a Montreal summer, without going off the island.
8. Do you think that writing in English in Quebec is a political act? Why or why not?
After publishing the poem "Winter" I realized from the reactions I received, that writing in English in Quebec can be taken as a political act. Although I didn't know this at the time I was writing it. So I'd like to answer this question with an excerpt from "Afterword to 'Winter' ." In 1998 I wrote:
…When I moved, it was from one province of Canada to a different province in Canada. It took me by surprise to encounter the vehemence of being hated because of the language I speak, and not because of my character or my actions. It was profoundly disturbing to be labelled an "anglophone" when my heritage is Russian and Scots.
The only real claim I make in the poem is to affirm poetic utterance as personal witness. My affirmation is of poetry as an art that contains individual testimony, perception, witness, experienceâ€¦.I think poetry can do thatâ€”it can lift us out of the purely personal or political into a universal, archetypal, or historical context. I am not saying "this" equals "that." I am saying "this feeling" or "this experience" constituting a particular place, time, event, brings to mind other events, times, places. One place doesn't equal another. The poem moves through metaphorical association, not by linear, absolute connection.
…"Winter" is not a political statement, it is a poem. It is up to politicians to create political ideologies, and up to citizens to make a culture, a polis (city), a community.
9. Why do you write?
I think I've already answered that question. As I said, if the poems stopped coming, I would no longer write poetry. I've now published eleven books of poetry, as well as a few chapbooks. I'll keep on working as long as the poems keep claiming my attention.
10. Who is your audience?
11. Do you think there is an audience, outside of friends or other poets, for poetry?
I consider that questions #10 and #11 are basically the same. At least, I am going to answer them as one question. I write for everyone who listens to or reads my poetry. And that audience is everywhere. When I was younger I was visiting Halifax, to attend the League of Canadian Poets national council meetings and to give readings. While there, I went to Dalhousie University Library. I met with the head librarian. She took me into her office, and on her desk were copies of all my published books, plus several different Caitlin Press titles. I realized then and there that my poems go more places than I had ever expected or even knew about.
I've been fortunate in having my poetry reviewed nationally in many publications. My poems have also been set to music, as well as being performed live, recorded, and broadcast by a variety of musicians, singers and composers. I once had a friend's mother tell me that she had found great comfort reading my poetry in the middle of the night, during a difficult time in her life. My friend Eleanor Cowan is currently writing a memoir. She lived and taught in northern Quebec for two years. She told me that at the beginning, she slept with my book on her chest, as protection against the extreme living conditions and loneliness of first being in Canada's far north. My next-door neighbour quotes back to me my poem, "Sunset Over Côte St. Luc Shopping Centre."
The first time Stephen and I went to New York City together, we visited the incredibly beautiful central library. Stephen looked up our book titles and the librarian gave us a print-out of our books that were in the library. They have all of our titles, except one of my books. Through my website I receive emails from readers all over the world, often students asking me questions or writing essays about Canadian poetry from other countries. There used to be programs whereby the Canadian government put literary books in all their consulates. Friends of ours in Montreal who are not poets nevertheless often attend our readings, because of their own interest. I'm always very touched by people, friends or strangers, who come to a reading or have read my poetry and then talk to me about the work, or tell me their reactions to a certain poem.
The audience for poetry is more diverse and far-flung than many poets realize, if the poet isn't aiming for only an academic audience. At the same time, poetry books don't exactly jump off the shelves and poetry print runs are not extensive. So the audience for poetry is on the one hand limitless; it is on the other hand probably rather selective. Most poets just aren't going to sell as many copies of their books as would a novelist. Most poets aren't household names. Still, the books get around, the poems make their own way in the world. When I lived in Vancouver, I had a friend who worked for a book distribution company. She told me there was someone in B.C. who collected every book of mine; I never met this person, and I don't know if he kept on following my career after I relocated to Quebec. This is how I feel about the majority of my audience: I don't know these people personally, but I know from experience that they exist.
12. Does your day job impact on your writing? How?
In 2006 I was critically ill with severe asthma, so in 2007, I decided to quit my day job. I made a trade-off between income and writing time. Now I do only my own writing, except for some freelance editing and consulting work. But generally speaking, everything in life interferes with my writing, even this interview. That doesn't mean that reflecting on these questions isn't part of my overall literary work. But while I'm thinking through my answers for this interview, there's no room for any poetry. However, I'm grateful for having this chance to pause, gather my thoughts, and respond to the questions. I owe a thank you to the three editors of Poetry Quebec−Endre Farkas, Elias Letelier and Carolyn Marie Souaid−for having the vision and energy to make this online poetry magazine come into being.
13. How many drafts (beer too) do you usually go through before you are satisfied/finished with a poem?
I can't answer for the beer, because I have allergies and can't drink alcohol. As I've already mentioned, a poem can need up to a hundred or more drafts, or it can need very little revising at all. It depends on each individual poem. If a piece of writing needs a lot of work, I do however many drafts it takes. I try to finish a poem before I publish it, but something might escape my attention the first time a piece is published. There are several chances to completely fine-tune a poem, if necessary. Sometimes poems are first published in print or online magazines. Then the poem will later appear in a poetry collection. It might also be printed in an anthology, but by that point I would like it to be a finished poem, unless it's an anthology that wants new, unpublished writing.
Right now I am working on my second selected poems, Fight Fire With Spirit: Selected & New Poems. Except for the new poetry, this book is comprised of a selection of my work published between 1990 and now. These books have all been published while I've been living in Quebec. There is a lot of work that goes into compiling a selected poems. Even though most of this poetry has previously been published in books, my editorial assistant, Marie Thone and I will go over each poem in this collection, in case some final revising needs done. I am unusual for a poet, because I am also an editor. Some poets need an outside editor in order to come to a finished draft of a poem. Even though I have worked as a long-time professional editor of poetry, I still feel my own work can always benefit from another person listening to the poem. During different times throughout my writing life I was part of various writers' groups, both here in Montreal and when I lived out west. I always valued the feedback from other poets and writers. I don't currently belong to a writing workshop but at other times it was helpful, interesting, and I liked sharing my work while in progress and hearing other writers' work.
14. Do you write with the intention of "growing a manuscript" or do you work on individual poems that are later collected into a book?
I always work with the intention of "growing a manuscript" and I work on individual poems that are later collected into a book. I work in both these ways at the same time. The book's title is almost always there, at the beginning. It's the title that gives that particular book the vision the individual poems are working toward. I often have something visual for the book's cover, as well as the title, at the outset. But then again, each poem is a separate piece of writing. I work at every poem, one at a time. When I begin a new manuscript, I am never sure of how each poem will reveal itself, or even what a particular poem will be end up being about. I follow the writing. It's like the clew or ball of thread Theseus was given by Ariadne, that he used to help get through the labyrinth, in order for him to slay the fearful minotaur at the center.
I am constantly surprised and amazed how each separate poem finally comes to fit together, and then−somehow−these disparate poems that may have been written over a four or five year time span, coalesce and form a whole, complete manuscript that makes sense, that holds together, that carry the book from beginning to end. Sometimes it is a bit simpler, in that I do at times write long poems; and at other times I may be working on a series of poems, for example my two series "The Female Nudes" and "The Male Nudes." But these two series were written several years apart. When I first wrote and published "The Female Nudes" I never knew there would be a second series. It was fun when I got to publish these two series together. Reading them now, one would think I had it all mapped out in advance, but that isn't the way it worked.
Going back to the question, I do think it is a matter of "growing a manuscript." It takes time, it takes tending and watering and weeding and waiting. And, just like a garden, we can never be quite sure exactly how this year's crop will grow or turn out. Just because we had great radishes last year, doesn't mean they'll be as good this year. The weather each growing season will certainly affect the harvest. Putting together a manuscript of new poems is a slow process. I usually divide my books into three or four sections. Often certain poems group together into one of these parts of a book. The order the poems appear in the finished manuscript are not necessarily the sequence in which they are written.
I feel that I'm fortunate, in that I've had the opportunity to "grow" several books of my own, as well as editing and shaping or publishing many books for other poets. I love the process of taking individual poems and helping the author gather their writing into a finished and ready to be published manuscript. In the editing world, it's called substantive editing. I've lost count of the books and chapbooks I've edited, published and/or helped to design, but it is somewhere just under or over a hundred titles of poetry, short fiction and non-fiction. As an editor, I also do stylistic editing and project management. I was a member of EAC, the Editors Association of Canada, from its inception as FEAC. Since 2006, I am no longer a member, but I enjoyed all my years of being part of this organization, both in Vancouver and in Montreal.
I guess, leaving the growing metaphor, we come back again to poiēsis or making. I love making both the poem itself, as a poet, and making poems into a book, whether it is my own book or one that I am editing for another poet or writer−the total made thing that we can hold, turn over in our hands, mull over in our heads and hearts, or place on our chest at night while we sleep. Every new book that I've had any part in helping to come into being always seems like a miracle to me. There. That book now exists, when in the past, it did not. Writing, editing, publishing−these are all a lot of hard work. Having the right skills to bring another's work to a publishable book is special. Not that many poets get the chance to see books from as many sides of the "making a book" process as I am able to do.
15. What is the toughest part of writing for you?
All parts of writing are tough for me. Although I said earlier that the poems "arrive" or "come to me" that is really a rather short-hand way of describing the writing process. It takes a great deal of discipline, dedication, and commitment to the setting up of one's life−so that the poems will, in fact, arrive. To actually hear the poem, takes a lot of listening. For me, the writing process is long, laborious and difficult. If I already know the title of a poem, I have to be able to wait and be patient, while the rest of the poem itself is forming. Then, for the poem to be fully heard, all other activities need to be cleared away, so that I can concentrate on actually listening with full attention to the poem as it is shaping itself on an inner level. Since I often carry a poem within me before I begin to write it down long-hand, mental alertness is important. Memory plays a role. Writing a poem necessitates concentration. When I'm actually in the poem, everything else disappears. It takes an ability to focus, concentrate and pay attention in order to write.
Then, in the craft and art of writing poetry, a lot of choices are made. Once I have the poem in written form, there are a multitude of decisions. I've always liked the fact that I have to make a lot of fine, detailed, specific adjustments during the writing process. But I've also said I'm glad I'm a poet and not a brain surgeon, because in the writing and revising and editing and publishing process there lies a vast potential to make errors. At the worst, I have to live with 500 or more copies of what I missed. Knowing how easy it is to make mistakes, if I were a brain surgeon, my patients might not live. In order to write poetry it also helps to be an obsessive type of personality. Who else would work extremely hard for little pay or glory, agonizing over every minute part of grammar, punctuation, rhythm, word or line sequence?
Back when I was living in Vancouver and my children were in school, I would write poetry, edit for Caitlin Press and freelance work, as well as prepare classes for the patched-together teaching jobs I had−full-time teaching being unavailable. As I raced to get all the work done I could, including my own writing, in the hours when my kids were in school, one day I noticed my next-door neighbour. She, like me, had a family. Her kids were in school. Unlike me, she didn't have any writing, editing, publishing or teaching work to do. I watched as she went out, dressed up, almost every week day, going out for lunch, social events, shopping. There I was, in my sweatpants, working against the clock. It came as a revelation when I realized how easy my life would be if all I did was teach and take care of my children. I had never before understood how hard literary work really was. I could see for the first time that I made sacrifices for my writing. I gave up time off, social time, leisure time. To be a writer often means making sacrifices of time, energy and money. It means a delicate balancing act of juggling paying work with literary work. If you are a writer who also edits, lectures, or publishes−all of which I've beenâ€”there is always a deadline.
16. What is your idea of a muse?
Once I wrote a poem entitled "On The Bus With Irving Layton" in which I say that my unexpected glimpse of the poet is "a true visitation/of the Male Muse." Not that I really considered Irving Layton to be my muse, beyond that one poem. The ancient muses were nine in number and were goddesses who were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (Memory). Here we again have the idea of memory as a part of the creative process. Each of these muses presided over different arts and poetic forms. My muse appears in various guises. I like the idea that inspiration for my poetry can come from a male muse, despite the muse being traditionally female. I think that my muses are of both genders; at any rate, I've been blessed with their ongoing willingness to inspire me to poetic creativity. I did have a muse who I got to know quite well, whose name was Curly. He was a very old man, with fine, wispy white hair and the kind of transparent skin that comes with advanced age. He was an extremely fine muse. I've also looked to Hermes, or Mercury, as my muse at different times in my writing life. In Jungian terms, my inner anima, as representative of the universal feminine, has played a part in inspiring my poetry.
17. Do you have a favourite time and place to write?
Any time. Any place.
18. Do you like to travel? Is travel important to your writing? Explain.
I can't think of many times when I ever had the spare time or money to actually take a trip for the sake of sight-seeing or going on holiday. Of course, I've done my share of traveling. But reflecting here on my style of travel, it seems often to consist more of living in a place, rather than the usual concept of going somewhere for a week or two, although I've done that as well. I don't seem to be very good at what most people call travel, hence coming to Quebec for a mere weekend and still being here eighteen years later. I've lived in Vancouver, Halfmoon Bay and Savary Island, B.C.; Los Angeles and Claremont, California; Rochester and Manhattan, New York; Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England; the island of Crete in Greece; Toronto, Ontario; Montreal and in the countryside near Huntingdon, Quebec…
I've commuted between country and city, between west coast and east. I've traveled in most every part of British Columbia, coastal and inland; I've traveled up and down the west coast including staying in Seattle for part of each summer and visiting Mexico and Hawaii; I hitch-hiked across Europe from Greece to England; I've lived in the countryside of Quebec and in apartments in Montreal at the same time, making the 70 km commute back and forth; I've driven across the United States via the historic Route 66 three times and once across Canada on the Trans-Canada highway; I have traveled to most parts of Canada; and I now divide my time between Vancouver, Montreal and New York City. As for being a normal tourist, it doesn't seem to be the way I travel. My travel style is to either live somewhere for a period of time; or to commute between more than one place, which it seems I've done a lot of and continue to do so.
How does this affect my writing? I think it has been beneficial for my poetry, because it makes me very aware of locale and landscape. It sharpens my sense of what distinguishes one place from another. I never take place for granted. I've also had to be adaptive in order to maintain my writing discipline, which is why I answered question #17 above as I did. Or maybe this peripatetic lifestyle drives me just crazy enough to keep on writing, as a counter-balance.
19. Do you have a favourite Quebec poet? If yes, who and why?
Stephen Morrissey is my favourite Quebec poet. If it weren't for him, I would not be living in Montreal. He is also one of Quebec's finest poets−read his work. Morrissey is a true original in the cannon of Canadian and Quebec poetry. His first new book in eleven years has just been published, Fall 2009, by Coracle Press. It's a great book that explores the city of Montreal from diverse viewpoints. I think it's a wonderful book from a poet whose work is unique. Reading Girouard Avenue will allow the reader to see Montreal in a fresh way.
20. Do you write about Quebec? If so, how and why? If not, why not?
Obviously, from all my answers above, Quebec comes into my poetry, directly as in locale, and politically as in a poem like "Winter." But basically, I write where I live. I write who I am. Having lived for as long as I have now in Quebec, this distinct, conflicted, infuriating, interesting, beautiful and elusive place has become part of who I am and what I write. This place, this landscape, this locale, my own backyard in N.D.G, the whole part and parcel of writing in English in Quebec, all of this, along with the great city of Montreal, has become part of my own poiēsis or making of my poetry.